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Results 1 - 25 of 210
1. Review of Strike!

brimner strike Review of Strike!Strike!:
The Farm Workers’
Fight for Their Rights
by Larry Dane Brimner
Intermediate, Middle School    Calkins Creek/Boyds Mills    172 pp.
10/14    978-1-59078-997-1    $16.95

Brimner turns his attention from one part of the 1960s — the civil rights movement in the South (Black & White) — to another, a parallel movement among migrant farm workers in the Southwest for better wages and working conditions. This comprehensive history traces California’s burgeoning need for farm workers in the twentieth century, and the often-
forgotten early contribution of Filipino Americans to this particular labor movement, before transitioning to the more familiar story of César Chávez, the United Farm Workers of America, and the Delano grape workers strike. Finally, Brimner ponders Chávez’s last years, death, and legacy — and the diminished role of the UFW today. It can be challenging to track all of the players in this drama, let alone the acronyms for various unions and such, but Brimner’s compelling narrative, complete with both textual and visual primary sources, is up to the task. The layout is inviting with swatches of green and purple to complement the dominant black-and-white color scheme and well-placed maps and photos, while brief Spanish translations of selected quotes, titles, and epigraphs are incorporated. An author’s note, a timeline, bibliography, source notes, and an index are appended.

From the September/October 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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2. Review of Into the Grey

kiernan into the grey Review of Into the GreyInto the Grey
by Celine Kiernan
Middle School, High School    Candlewick    295 pp.
8/14    978-0-7636-7061-0    $16.99
e-book ed.  978-0-7636-7409-0    $16.99

When their home burns down, twin teens Patrick and Dominick move with their family to the shabby seaside cottage where they usually spend summer holidays. Almost at once, Pat sees that Dom is being haunted by the ghost of a young boy, while Pat himself is visited by nightmares of a soldier drowning in the muddy trenches of World War I. Eventually Dom is utterly possessed by Francis, the ghost of a boy who died of diphtheria decades ago, and Pat is desperate to do what he can to retrieve his brother. Family and local history come together as the twisting plot makes its way toward resolution: another pair of twin brothers, a senile grandmother, Irish lads turned British soldiers, and a series of surreal dreams and psychic landscapes all fall into place. Sometimes Kiernan’s storytelling is fraught and overdrawn; at its best it is confident, pungent, and poetic. Family love, loyalty, and protectiveness are palpable in a well-drawn cast of characters, and the pace is frequently galvanized with energetic drama and dialogue pierced with Irish dialect.

From the September/October 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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3. Windows and mirrors book discussion

Lauren had her first adolescent lit class last night at HGSE (Harvard Graduate School of Education). For last night’s class we talked about How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. I love this part of a course when the students go from names and faces on a roster to real people with opinions about books. Lauren gave an excellent overview of literature for adolescents: the history, the jargon, the genres.

oct27readings Windows and mirrors book discussion

For next Monday’s class the theme is Windows & Mirrors and they will all read Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. For their second book, they have a choice between Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park and Cynthia Kadohata’s The Thing About Luck. Tough choice!

Please join us as we discuss these books before Monday evening’s class. Things tend to pick up steam later in the week, but we like to put up the posts early for those who are reading ahead.

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4. The Thing About Luck

kadohata thingaboutluck 197x300 The Thing About LuckIn The Thing about Luck by Cynthia Kadohata, Summer has important duties to fulfill as the daughter and granddaughter of migrant harvest workers, and she must also meet the daily demands of her traditional Japanese grandparents. Summer’s multi-generational family and their lives as agricultural workers are facets of contemporary American culture that may be unfamiliar to many young readers — or adults for that matter. How does Kadohata invite all readers into Summer’s story while maintaining her family’s distinct experience and perspective? What surprised, delighted, or intrigued you most about Summer, Jaz, Obaachan, and Jiichan?

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5. The Map Trap - a review

Move over, Frindle. A new classic has arrived!

Below is my review of The Map Trap by Andrew Clements, as it appeared in the October, 2014, edition of School Library Journal.

CLEMENTS, Andrew. The Map Trap. 2 CDs. 2:29 hrs. S. & S. Audio. 2014. $14.99. ISBN 9781442357013. digital download.

Gr 3-6 -- Alton Ziegler is crazy about maps. He particularly loves the way they can visually display any manner of information in a variety of ways. Surreptitiously, he collects data and creates humorous maps detailing such trivia as the popularity of lunchroom tables (depicted as a topographical map of the cafeteria) or a weather map of a teacher's clothes. Striped tie today? Look out -- the probability of a pop quiz is high. He never meant for anyone to see his collection, but when it's "mapnapped," there's no telling where the road might lead. Keith Nobbs is perfectly cast as the narrator. He creates a pensive Alton that fits the mood of the story. Clements's (In Harm's Way) use of subjective third-person narration is interesting in that the listener is privy to the inner concerns not only of Alton but of his teacher Miss Wheeling as well. Rarely is a teacher's perspective presented with such honesty and clarity in a middle grade novel. Though Nobbs's voice sometimes cracks when portraying female characters, his delivery, nonetheless, is still pleasing and believable. The Map Trap is a thoughtful, holistic look at the middle school environment that will have wide appeal. 

Copyright © 2014 Library Journals, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc.
Reprinted with permission.


The publisher's website contains an audio and a printed excerpt from The Map Trap, as well as a video with author, Andrew Clements.

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6. El Deafo

eldeafo El DeafoThis week, I was lucky enough to have a thirty-minute window when I could pop into my favorite independent bookstore in Los Angeles. They have a large children’s section on the second floor that I love perusing because they do an excellent job at getting new books.

On one of their displays sat El Deafo by Cece Bell. Intrigued first by the illustration of a superhero bunny and second by the title, my immediate thought was “What is this book about and who is this written for?” As if by fate, a children’s book worker looked up from her task of stocking new books and said “Oh that’s a really cute story. I highly recommend it.” I inquired about the reading level and she said it could be from fourth grade to middle school. Opening it, I was stoked to find out it was a graphic novel. Sold. It may be one of the best impulsive $20 I’ve spent of late.

I read this book in two days. It follows the author’s childhood experiences of being deaf, and specifically highlights her experiences in school. What captured me was the depiction of how people treated her and, since it’s from Cece’s point of view, how she felt. Her emotions come through strongly in the text and illustrations, and made me stop and think about how I treat people even if my intention is good. I connected with Cece’s superhero persona, “El Deafo.” Cece uses El Deafo to imagine the ideal way to handle tough situations, even if that doesn’t play out in real life (something I did as a kid too). What I really loved about this book was how the author depicted her friendships with the other kids (the good and the bad). It reminded me that children can sometimes do really mean things but that most of the time they mean well and can be really amazing friends to each other. It’s a lesson I need to carry for the school year.

Cece’s journey starts at the age of four and ends in fifth grade, so as a fifth grade teacher, I’m very excited to bring this graphic novel to my classroom. I think the students will enjoy this book and learn a lot from it. I believe that it will carry lessons of tolerance and respect for those who are hearing impaired, and prepare my students with tools (Don’t cover your mouth while someone is lip reading! Don’t assume all deaf people can sign!) to create meaningful and comfortable experiences with someone who can’t hear well.

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7. Same theme, different level

It’s a new year with new kids! I’m working with the same population, but the way this school deals with the social and emotional components of learning is amazing. With that said, I have a group of 8th graders who are very low-level readers. It was a bit surprising because most of them are articulate and fluent, but it turns out that academically, their language level is quite low.

Right now, I am preparing my literature circles and have been looking through books that hit relevant topics, such as bullying, abuse, and coming of age. Unfortunately, it looks like the books I had last year are a bit too high for this year’s group. Last year, I had a few of my kids read Meg Medina’s Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass and Leila Sales’s This Song Will Save Your Life. Both the boys and the girls were understandably thrilled by the titles and read them avidly. It led to many interesting discussions.

flake skin 199x300 Same theme, different levelWith this year’s group, however, I am not certain about being able to introduce those books. Or at least, I’d have to wait until the end of the year. However, our interests were piqued by another book that addresses the same issue of bullying, but has a lower reading level: The Skin I’m In by Sharon G. Flake. This book centers on Maleeka Madison, a middle-school girl who is the target of widespread bullying. Although the reading level is low, the subject matter is not, and Flake’s way of deftly introducing us to the key characters and issues is both satisfying and quick!

I know there are other books about bullying and peer pressure (many by Jerry Spinelli and Walter Dean Myers), but I think something about Maleeka really resonated with my students. Perhaps they are better able to relate to the context and issues that arise in The Skin I’m In than in the others. Regardless, my students and I are definitely huge fans!

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8. Review of Nest

ehrlich nest Review of NestNest
by Esther Ehrlich
Intermediate, Middle School    Lamb/Random    330 pp.
9/14    978-0-385-38607-4    $16.99
Library ed.  978-0-385-38608-1    $19.99    g
e-book ed.  978-0-385-38609-8    $9.99

In this debut novel set in the late 1960s, Naomi “Chirp” Orenstein’s sixth-grade teacher tells her, “Your mom is a very lucky lady to have such a responsible girl.” Chirp is very responsible, but her mother is feeling anything but lucky. She’s been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and sinks into a severe depression, ultimately committing suicide. It’s an overwhelmingly sad story, but the sadness never feels gratuitous, only immutable, just like the Cape Cod seasons and the ebb and flow of life in Chirp’s beloved salt marsh. Ehrlich’s characters are all fully developed: the dancer mother in anguish over not being the parent she wanted to be; the psychiatrist father’s well-meaning but hapless response to the situation; and — most of all — Chirp’s best friend Joey, who has his own issues at home. Chirp’s first-person voice is believable; her poignant earnestness is truly heartrending. Ehrlich writes beautifully, constructing scenes with grace and layers of telling detail and insight. She offers Chirp (and readers) no trite and tidy resolutions, just a dawning understanding that her “nest” of family, friends, and salt marsh will give her the support and sustenance she needs to move forward.

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9. Inquiry-Based Centers in Grades 3-8

Inquiry-based centers introduce kids to mentor texts while helping them find their own mentor texts.

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10. Blasting the canon

As a new English department chair, I’ve already been faced with decisions about book orders. Our high school opened in 2007, but our middle school just opened with a sixth grade class last year. This means it was time for us to create a seventh grade curriculum.

I believe in leadership through structured freedom, so I decided that I would create a list of texts and let the seventh grade English teacher select the books she wanted to use for her class. My instinct, like usual, was to turn to Google. I searched terms such as “books all middle schoolers should read,” “classic literature for middle school,” and “best seventh grade texts.” I scoured random syllabi and reading lists from all over the country.

Though there was variation, by and large the books I kept coming across could be considered part of the literary canon. You could probably guess several of them, and chances are you read many of them if you attended middle school in this country over the last century.

I know I have a habit of blogging about old questions, but here I am with another: how important is it that our students read canonical works?

Do our West Philly middle and high schoolers really need to study Red Badge of Courage or Call of the Wild? Why not The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, or Copper Sun by Sharon Draper?

crane redbadgecourage2 225x300 120x160 Blasting the canon     london callofwild 197x300 105x160 Blasting the canon

graveyard book 107x160 Blasting the canon     yang americanbornchinese 204x300 108x160 Blasting the canon     draper coppersun 198x300 105x160 Blasting the canon

I’m not saying that the newer texts are better. Some are. Some aren’t. However, I do think that many of us—especially those of us in the position to put books in front of kids—need to question our unquestioning allegiance to the “classics.”

I suppose there are two arguments in their defense: 1. These books represent the very best writing in the English language; 2. Students will gain cultural capital from familiarity with these stories.

Yet, neither of these sway me.

I think it’s more accurate to say the canonical works used to represent some the best writing, but times change. Great books are published every year, whether or not they end up on some school’s curriculum or a bestseller list.

As for the cultural capital argument, that seems to me just a straight fallacy. The true value of a book comes not from the power to impress others but from whatever that book impresses upon its reader.

So instead of automatically turning to the canon because of faulty assumptions, let’s trust ourselves to find stories that will speak to our children.

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11. Review of The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place

berry scandalous sisterhood of prickwillow place Review of The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow PlaceThe Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place
by Julie Berry
Middle School    Roaring Brook    354 pp.
9/14    978-1-59634-956-6    $15.99    g

This airy confection could not be more different from Berry’s most recent (and pitch-black) novel All the Truth That’s in Me (rev. 11/13). Part murder mystery, part girls’-school story, part dark drawing-room comedy (think Edwin Drood, Arsenic and Old Lace, or the 1980s movie Clue), the novel opens in 1890 England at Saint Etheldreda’s School for Young Ladies. The seven students — our heroines — are known throughout the book as Dear Roberta, Disgraceful Mary Jane, Dull Martha, Stout Alice, Smooth Kitty, Pocked Louise, and Dour Elinor. Their headmistress is Mrs. Plackett, but she’s dispatched in the second paragraph (by poison), followed soon afterward by her ne’er-do-well brother, Aldous. The young ladies spend the rest of the book trying to figure out whodunit while also concealing the deaths (burying the bodies in the vegetable garden; having Stout Alice impersonate Mrs. Plackett; bilking their parents for tuition) in order to remain together at the school. Berry takes her madcap seriously, never breaking character when it comes to the old-timey setting or details (a Strawberry Social is the unlikely occasion of a late-in-the-story death). The young ladies, too, are products of their time: each one’s burgeoning independence and coming-into-her-own — largely gained through the murder investigation and/or cover-up, some also through snagging a beau — is satisfying without being too anachronistic. An immensely entertaining, smart, and frothy diversion.

From the September/October 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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12. Writing Multiple Points of View | Writing Tips

The main challenge in writing multiple points of view is helping the reader keep everybody sorted out.

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13. Middle School Ultimate Showdown - an audiobook review

Below is my review of the audio version of Middle School: Ultimate Showdown by James Patterson and Julia Bergen, as it appeared in the June, 2014 edition of School Library Journal.



PATTERSON, James & Julia Bergen. Middle School: Ultimate Showdown. 2 CDs. 2 hrs. Hachette Audio. 2014. $18. ISBN 9781478952619.

Gr 3–6—Rafe Khatchadorian and his younger sister, Georgia, here engage in a series of rants about bullies, school dances, dress codes, and other middle school concerns. However, this work is not simply about rants. It centers on a showdown between the siblings—with listeners acting as judges. Included on the CD is a 66-page PDF offering. Listeners who print it out can vote, draw, play, and create, adding their own opinions to Rafe's and Georgia's. Narrators Bryan Kennedy and Cassandra Morris make it easy for listeners to follow the inevitable disagreements between the siblings. Morris, as Georgia, is likable, confident, and youthful. Kennedy's Rafe is perfect for the wisecracking troublemaker, but he suffers from the lack of character depth in the showdown format. Listeners not familiar with his character from other books in the series will find him shallow and arrogant. While considerable adaptations were made for the audiobook format, the necessity of printing and constantly referencing the lengthy PDF will likely limit this audiobook's appeal to book group facilitators and die-hard fans of the series.



Copyright © 2014 Library Journals, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
###

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14. Review of The Madman of Piney Woods

MadmanPineyWoods Review of The Madman of Piney Woodsstar2 Review of The Madman of Piney Woods The Madman of Piney Woods
by Christopher Paul Curtis
Intermediate, Middle School   Scholastic    370 pp.
9/14    978-0-545-15664-6    $16.99    g
e-book ed.  978-0-545-63376-5    $16.99

In this companion to Newbery Honor Book Elijah of Buxton (rev. 11/07), it is now 1901, and for thirteen-year-old Benji Alston of Buxton, Ontario, the American Civil War is ancient history — great material for war games, but tedious when the Buxton elders harp on it. Life for this African Canadian nature lover involves coping with two irritatingly gifted younger siblings, spending time with his best friend Spence, and dreaming of becoming a newspaper reporter. In nearby Chatham lives Alvin “Red” Stockard, a scientifically inclined Irish Canadian boy whose borderline-abusive grandmother tells horrific stories of the Potato Famine and coffin ships on the St. Lawrence River, tales that, in her mind, justify her inflexible hatred of Canadians and “anyone whose skin is darker than [hers].” The two boys eventually meet and become friends, discovering unexpected similarities in each other and their family histories. And then there is that supposedly mythical woodland monster — called the Madman of Piney Woods by Buxton residents and the South Woods Lion Man by Chatham folk — who tragically and irrevocably brings the past into the present for both boys. Curtis takes his young protagonists — and his readers — on a journey of revelation and insight. Woven throughout this profoundly moving yet also at times very funny novel are themes of family, friendship, community, compassion, and, fittingly, the power of words.

From the September/October 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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15. Frankly, tired of reading Anne Frank

frank diary of a young girl Frankly, tired of reading Anne FrankI’ve hit an academic dilemma at summer camp this year. For the past three years at this gifted students’ camp, my lead instructor has chosen to teach The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank). Yes, the book provides an entryway into a very difficult historical topic; yes, it’s pretty amazing to watch Anne’s growth; and yes, she is a role model and a hero for multiple reasons. But I’m so tired of reading and teaching Anne’s diary year after year. Though it’s new to my students every time, it’s become monotonous to me. I’m bored!

I encountered the same problem with another lead teacher during the school year, except she couldn’t stand Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell.  Having been raised in California, I read this book in elementary school because the narrative explained so much about Native American daily life in California. My lead teacher had used the text for over ten years, so it was understandable why she was simply sick of the book. As her assistant now given the task of teaching Island of the Blue Dolphins, I asked her why she didn’t switch Island of the Blue Dolphins out for another book. Her reasoning was that she saw the value in teaching it despite her feelings.

inside out back again thanhha lai hardcover cover art Frankly, tired of reading Anne FrankMy solution so far is to find suitable replacements (Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, in case you were wondering) but recognize that this isn’t feasible for most teachers on a regular basis. To choose a replacement means taking the time to find a book that matches what you find value in the original (now boring) book, write a whole new curriculum, and figure out how to teach it. It’s much easier to pull out familiar curriculum.

So what to do about Anne Frank? I still haven’t decided if I want to say goodbye to her forever. But the question still stands: what do you do when you have a book of value and you don’t have the passion for teaching it anymore? Do you continue to teach it because of its merit, or shelve it?

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16. Review of At Home in Her Tomb

liu perkins at home in her tomb Review of At Home in Her TombAt Home in Her Tomb: Lady Dai and the Ancient Chinese Treasures of Mawangdui
by Christine Liu-Perkins; 
illus. by Sarah S. Brannen
Intermediate, Middle School    Charlesbridge    80 pp.
4/14    978-1-58089-370-1    $19.95
e-book ed.  978-1-60734-615-9    $9.99

Late in 1971, workers digging an air-raid shelter in Hunan Province found three tombs of a noble family from early in the Han dynasty. The oldest tomb, 
of the Marquis of Dai (d. 186 BCE), was plundered long ago. His son’s 
(d. 168 BCE) retained important artifacts, though it had been damaged during construction of the third tomb, which was virtually intact and of enormous archaeological significance. Here, buried in 158 BCE in a preservative so effective that autopsy was still possible, was the still-soft body of “Lady Dai,” the marquis’s wife, cocooned in twenty layers of silk within four nested coffins; and more than a thousand artifacts — treasures in painted silk, lacquer, brass, and wood. Liu-Perkins describes the discovery in fascinating detail, including the lady’s household appointments, diet, amusements, and death; brief imagined scenes supplement the evidence. Perhaps the most significant find was a “library” of books written on silk and bamboo, safe in a lacquer box in the son’s tomb: fifty texts and documents, many of them unique, concerning science, philosophy, history, and government. Illustrative materials include maps and well-captioned photos as well as Brannen’s watercolors of the imagined scenes. Sidebars, too, supplement and clarify information, as do timelines, a glossary, citations for quotes, an index, and a two-page bibliography. Lady Dai’s remains are of huge interest in their own right; as Liu-Perkins ably demonstrates, such a find not only extends our factual knowledge but also deepens our appreciation of the diversity of past civilizations.

From the July/August 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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17. Words with Wings - a review

Below is my review from the August, 2014, edition of School Library Journal.


GRIMES, Nikki. Words with Wings. 1 CD. 41 min. Recorded
Books. 2014. $15.75. ISBN 9781490609676. Playaway, digital
download.

Gr 3–5— Gabriella is a dreamer, more like the father she visits than the mother she lives with every day. Since her parents separated, Gabby and her mother have moved, and she has enrolled in a new school. Always the class daydreamer, she's prepared for the teasing that she knows will come. Mention the word "butterfly," and her thoughts may soar out the classroom window on the imagined wings of a beautiful creature. Other words create thoughts that are more pensive. Sometimes it's easier to retreat into her imagination than to face her circumstances. Gabby's expectations for her new school are low, but her teacher and a quiet boy in the back of the room offer some hope in her new surroundings. With encouragement, perhaps a pen and paper can anchor the "words with wings" that set Gabby's mind adrift. Mutiyat Ade-Salu is perfectly cast for this story in verse, told in the first person in the present tense story. Her voice is youthful and likable, and as Gabriella's thoughts soar, plummet, and wander, so too does the voice of Ade-Salu. A perfect book for poets, dreamers, and reluctant readers.


Copyright © 2014 Library Journals, LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

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18. Visual Writer Introductions

Fostering a nurturing writing community at the beginning of the school year means taking the time to build a community of writers. Here's an artistic way you can have students introduce themselves, and their quirks, to their peers.

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19. Graphic novels for middle schoolers

From poignant historical fiction to introspective coming-of-age tale, hilarious space caper to action-packed superhero story, four new graphic novels for middle-schoolers showcase the range of the graphic novel format.

faulkner gaijin Graphic novels for middle schoolersIn Gaijin: American Prisoner of War, thirteen-year-old Koji Miyamoto is living in San Francisco with his (white) mother when Japan attacks Pearl Harbor. Despite being only half-Japanese, Koji is forced to relocate to the Alameda Downs Assembly Center across the bay. There he wrestles not only with his father’s temporary absence from the family but also with a gang of boys in the camp who constantly bully him — for being a gaijin, a foreigner. Through astute choices of medium, color, and composition, author/illustrator Matt Faulkner creates a vivid and compelling internment-camp drama for young readers. (Disney-Hyperion, 11–14 years)

tamaki this one summer Graphic novels for middle schoolersEvery summer Rose Wallace and her parents go to their cottage on Awago Beach. But this year Rose starts to feel too old for the activities she used to love — and, at times, even for her younger (and more childish) friend Windy. Meanwhile, Rose is caught up in the tension between her parents and fascinated by adult behaviors the local teens are trying on. In This One Summer, author-and-illustrator cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki examine the mix of uncertainty and hope that a girl experiences on the verge of adolescence. Dramatic purple-blue ink illustrations capture the raw emotional core of this story set at the beginning of the end of childhood. (Roaring Brook/First Second, 11–14 years)

maihack cleopatra in space Graphic novels for middle schoolersYanked from first-century B.C. Egypt to the Nile galaxy thousands of years in the future, Cleopatra (quick with both a quip and a ray gun) is hailed as a messiah destined to crush the evil Xerx. Author/illustrator Mike Maihack’s Cleopatra in Space: Target Practice portrays a time-warped Egypt in crisp line art, muted jewel tones, and striking perspectives that create riveting panels featuring futuristic pyramids and a flying-sphinx motorbike. After Cleo single-handedly vanquishes mummy robots and tosses out another one-liner (“Let’s wrap this up”) readers will be clamoring for more of Maihack’s dynamic illustrations, campy humor, and, of course, more Cleo. (Scholastic/Graphix, 11–14 years)

yang shadow hero Graphic novels for middle schoolersWorld War II–era cartoonist Chu Hing reportedly wanted his comic superhero the Green Turtle to be Chinese; not surprisingly for the time, his publishers balked. Now seventy years later, author Gene Luen Yang and illustrator Sonny Liew vindicate Hing in The Shadow Hero, which imagines the Green Turtle as “the first Asian American superhero.” Hank wants to lead a quiet existence in the Chinatown of noir-ish (fictional) San Incendio. But his mother has higher aspirations for Hank: she wants her son to be a superhero. Humor, strong characters, and cracking good action — plus a nuanced portrayal of Chinese American culture — keep the requisite trials and tribulations of the superhero-in-training fresh. (Roaring Brook/First Second, 11–14 years)

From the June 2014 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.

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20. Three Bird Summer: Sara St. Antoine

Book: Three Bird Summer
Author: Sara St. Antoine
Pages: 256
Age Range: 10 to 14

Three Bird Summer by Sara St. Antoine is a lovely book about the summer that a 12 year old boy spends at his grandmother's cabin on Three Bird Lake in Minnesota. It's a quiet sort of book about an introspective kid, but St. Antoine manages to touch upon the challenges families face as grandparents age, the aftermath of divorce, and the tentative first steps of boy-girl relationships. There's also a small mystery, and even a treasure map. It's a coming-of-age story, though without major drama. 

In truth, the subject matter of Three Bird Summer felt a bit ... familiar, with echoes of Cynthia Lord's Half a Chance and Karen Day's A Million Miles from Boston, and even Jeanne Birdsall's The Penderwicks at Point Mouette. Summer stories all, featuring kids of a similar age range. But the sheer beauty of St. Antoine's writing, as well as her choice to feature a male protagonist, make Three Bird Summer stand out. 

Adam is a fine narrator, a little geeky, a little lazy, and baffled by the behavior of girls. His initially reluctant friendship with new neighbor Alice, and the oh-so-gradual dawning of "more than friend" feelings, is utterly believable. Alice and her parents are, perhaps, a tiny bit too good to be true, but I love that she spent the previous summer at a science camp for girls, and that she chafes under the yoke of her over-protective parents. Adam's mother and grandmother are well-drawn, too, with flaws as well as surprises. 

Three Bird Summer perfectly captures the feel of a rustic summer lake house. Like this:

"Mom lingered in the kitchen while I hauled my duffel through the main part of the cabin, breathing in the familiar smell of wood paneling and fireplace cinders. Everything was in its usual place." (Page 10)

and

"A cool breeze crossed the water. It felt like the great North was barreling through me with my every breath. Here's what slipped away: schedules, bus rides, the stale smell of the school cafeteria, algebraic equations, Mom and Dad's phone arguments, girl talk, and Grandma's interrogations. Here's what I got in exchange: water sloshing slowly and steadily against the dock like the heartbeat of a great whale. A pair of black-and-white loons swimming into view. Fresh air and a lake that, right then, felt like it was all mine." (Page 16)

Reading the above passage, I could practically feel the tension leaving Adam's shoulders. Three Bird Summer is filled with passages that I wanted to save, long and short. Like this:

"Mom turned around and we began paddling again, but not in a getting-there sort of way -- more like a being-there sort of way." (Page 199)

For the rest, you'll have to read the book. Three Bird Summer is a book to read on your front porch on a warm summer day (or, even better, on a dock floating in a lake in your bathing suit). It's about growing up, the ways that family relationships change, and young love. It's beautifully written, with a strong sense of place, and well-rounded characters. While Three Bird Summer is clearly a book that will appeal to adult readers, I hope that kids find it and love it, too. Despite the male protagonist, Three Bird Summer certainly has as much appeal for girls as for boys. Recommended! 

Publisher: Candlewick (@Candlewick)
Publication Date: May 13, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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21. Review of This One Summer

tamaki this one summer Review of This One Summerstar2 Review of This One SummerThis One Summer
by Mariko Tamaki; illus. by Jillian Tamaki
Middle School    First Second/Roaring Brook    320 pp.
5/14    978-1-59643-774-6    $17.99

Rose Wallace and her parents go to Awago Beach every summer. Rose collects rocks on the beach, swims in the lake, and goes on bike rides with her younger “summer cottage friend,” Windy. But this year she is feeling too old for some of the activities she used to love — and even, at times, for the more-childish (yet self-assured) Windy. Rose would rather do adult things: watch horror movies and talk with Windy about boobs, boys, and sex. In their second graphic novel — another impressive collaboration — the Tamaki cousins (Skim, rev. 7/08) examine the mix of uncertainty and hope a girl experiences on the verge of adolescence. The episodic plot and varied page layout set a leisurely pace evocative of summer. Rose’s contemplative observations and flashbacks, along with the book’s realistic dialogue, offer insight into her evolving personality, while the dramatic changes in perspective and purply-blue ink illustrations capture the narrative’s raw emotional core. Secondary storylines also accentuate Rose’s transition from childhood to young adulthood: she’s caught in the middle of the tension between her parents (due to her mom’s recent abrasive moodiness and the painful secret behind it) and fascinated by the local teens’ behavior (swearing, drinking, smoking, fighting, and even a pregnancy; the adult situations — and frank language — she encounters may be eye-opening reading for pre-adolescents like Rose). This is a poignant drama worth sharing with middle-schoolers, and one that teen readers will also appreciate for its look back at the beginnings of the end of childhood.

From the July/August 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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22. The Animal Book e-book review

animal book The Animal Book e book reviewSteve Jenkins’s 2014 Boston Globe-Horn Book Nonfiction Honor Book The Animal Book: A Collection of the Fastest, Fiercest, Toughest, Cleverest, Shyest — and Most Surprising — Animals on Earth is available in an enhanced e-book edition (HMH, 2013).

An introduction describes the book’s features: Animal Fact Pop-Up Boxes provide more information about select creatures’ sizes, habitats, and diets, along with fun facts.

animal book manatee fact box The Animal Book e book review

An Embedded Glossary allows for quick definitions of terms that are printed in blue; there’s also a complete glossary for reference. Occasional Interactive Elements include comparison charts, timelines, and other at-a-glance features.

animal book ecological pyramid The Animal Book e book review

A Notes feature allows you to highlight text and take your own notes (on blank note-cards), along with quiz-like Study Cards that can be shuffled with your notes and used for recall.

The whole thing is pretty low-tech, but not in a bad way. Just as in Jenkins’s book, the art is what really shines through. The quality is high — all the pictures are crisp and bright, even the close-up images (go eye-to-eye with the colossal squid on page 44 or nose-to-nose with that Siberian tiger on page 104… if you dare!). The table of contents and scrolling footers allow you to jump to individual sections or to pages in Jenkins’s book, which was already well suited for browsing. There’s a 4.5-minute Making Of video at the end in which Jenkins discusses his process and shows viewers how he creates a rhino, from sketch to paper selection to cutting pieces with an X-acto to assembling the collage; he also shows a page-layout board… and shows off his own animal! (His dog makes a cameo.) Some ’80s-sounding background music jazzes up the narration.

Available for iPad and Mac; $9.99. Recommended for primary to middle school users.

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23. Review of Like No Other

lamarche like no other Review of Like No OtherLike No Other
by Una LaMarche
Middle School, High School    Razorbill/Penguin    347 pp.
7/14    978-1-59514-674-8    $17.99    g

How’s this for a meet cute? New York teens Devorah and Jaxon get stuck in a hospital elevator during a hurricane. Though their encounter is a fairly brief one, it’s also intense, and both come away with that love-at-first-sight feeling. Here’s where things get complicated. Devorah is a Hasidic Jew, and a frum one at that (“basically the Yiddish equivalent of ‘hopeless goody two-shoes’”). Jaxon is black. They live in present-day Crown Heights; and although, as Jaxon says, “the neighborhood has become so gentrified that I’m more likely to get hit by an artisanal gluten-free scone than a bullet, let’s be real,” tensions can still run high, especially within Devorah’s ultra-conservative family. Even though Devorah’s menacing brother-in-law, a member of the Shomrim (Orthodox neighborhood watch), is on to them, she still can’t resist accidentally-on-purpose bumping into Jax at his work and accepting the cell phone he sneaks (in a grand romantic gesture) into her yard. The story is told from the teens’ alternating perspectives. While Jax is a little too good to be true, Devorah, whether agonizing over her love life or sharing informative details about Hasidic daily life and religious philosophy, is believable and engaging. Her struggle between tradition and modernity, filial duty and personal fulfillment, is complicated and realistic; just because she doesn’t want an arranged marriage doesn’t mean she’s ready to turn her back on her family and her culture. This leads to a conclusion that, while bittersweet, is still hopeful.

From the July/August 2014 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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24. The Summer I Saved the World . . . in 65 Days: Michele Weber Hurwitz

Book: The Summer I Saved the World ... in 65 Days
Author: Michele Weber Hurwitz
Pages: 272
Age Range: 10 and up

The Summer I Saved the World ... in 65 Days is about a thirteen-year-old girl who decides to do "one good thing every single day", anonymously, over the summer before starting high school. This would not ordinarily be my sort of thing. But The Summer I Saved the World ... in 65 Days is about much more than the good deeds themselves. It's about that awkward stage in life when you start to grow in different directions from your childhood friends. It's about neighbors, and family, and the very early stages of adolescent attraction. And of all of this is exactly my sort of thing. I liked this book very much. 

Nina is someone who most readers will be able to relate to on one level or another. She likes playing basketball (though she's not sure she can make the high school team). She's exploring a new interest in art. She has a group of friends that she's spent time with because of common activities, but isn't sure she really belongs with them. She plays cheerfully with the little boy next door. She feels frustrated by her work-obsessed parents, and mourns a time when her family was different. And she both loves and is frustrated by her long-time best friend, Jorie. She declares herself "in beween everything". So many of us have been there at one point or another. 

The Summer I Saved the World ... in 65 Days could almost have been written about a girl about to start middle school, instead of high school. It is definitely age-appropriate for middle schoolers - there are a couple of kisses; even the rebellious older brother sits around with his friends and plays poker and drinks root beer.

It's also relatively timeless. Much is made of Nina's not-very-functional cell phone. To me this seemed to be a device to keep Nina focused on the real world, and real conversations. There's plenty of playing ball in the cul-de-sac, gardening, and going to the playground. 

One thing that I really liked about this book was the way that the author highlights everyone in Nina's small neighborhood. This includes people of all ages, and at least a bit of ethnic diversity. There's a little map of the cul-de-sac at the front of the book, adding to cozy feel of the setting.

There's no question that The Summer I Saved the World ... in 65 Days is a feel-good, coming of age story. Nina learns to "step up", instead of waiting for other people to do things. Her actions help to draw the neighborhood together (despite the suspicious reaction of one resident). But Michele Weber Hurwitz keeps the book from feeling message-y by focusing on Nina's first-person voice, and by making it clear that everything Nina does is self-directed. Here's what Nina has to say about it:

"I've never been terrific at finishing projects. This past year, I started a scrapbook, a journal, three books, daily yoga stretches, and a beauty routine involving a weekly mask and blackhead strips. I didn't continue any of them. I got bored, distracted. But the sixty-five things are something I want to finish. I have to. They're sneaky and fun and exciting--thinking of them, figuring out how to keep them secret. Every time, I get this filled-up, kind of powerful feeling. Strong. Hopeful." (Page 53)

The Summer I Save the World ... in 65 Days is a very nice read for middle schoolers, more girls than boys, I think (particularly given the pink and yellow cover). It addresses that yen that kids get sometimes to be a better person, and also explores the "in between" times that arise as kids grow up, and sometimes grow away from other people. There's a light romance and a smidgen of family drama to keep things interesting. The Summer I Saved the World .. in 65 Days is a fun book with heart. Recommended!

Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books (@RandomHouseKids
Publication Date: April 8, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

FTC Required Disclosure:

This site is an Amazon affiliate, and purchases made through Amazon links (including linked book covers) may result in my receiving a small commission (at no additional cost to you).

© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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25. Who’s doing the thinking?

Over the summer, I’ve been doing some literacy work with an educational consulting group here in Boston — we’re taking some of their existing professional development (PD) and classroom tools and modifying them to better address the Common Core. Last week, I went with some other members of the team to a PD session for high school teachers titled “Who’s Doing the Thinking?” In light of the Common Core, this workshop was designed to help teachers accurately assess the thinking demands in their classroom, and to make informed decisions around when we should guide students in diving into complex texts, and when we should let them do it on their own.

As part of this workshop, we watched a video of a high-performing 9th grade ELA classroom. The students were seated in a modified semi-circle having a whole-class discussion around themes in the latest chapter of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks — a literary nonfiction text they were reading together. As the teacher facilitated the discussion, she skillfully asked probing questions like “What makes you say that?” “Where in the text can you find evidence to support that?” “Why do you think that?”  Her questions enabled students to really ground their thinking in textual evidence — a key piece of Common Core reading.

However, I couldn’t help but notice another teacher move that happened often. After each student finished giving evidence and making a statement, the teacher almost always offered a “summary plus.” That is, she concisely restated the student’s point and added some of her own thinking to the student’s comment. I likely noticed this because I do it all the time: taking a student comment and adding more detail. Now, I think this is sometimes wholly appropriate, but after watching about ten minutes of this video and reflecting on my own practice, I wondered, Shouldn’t we be trying to get students to do these “summary pluses”? In a perfect world, wouldn’t we be nearly absent from the conversation?

The video clip I watched happened towards the beginning of a unit, and I have no doubt that the discussion was more “teacher heavy” than later discussions would be. But the video still got me thinking. In addition to simply probing students to give evidence, what can we as teachers say and do to encourage students to give those mini-summaries? One thing I’ve decided I’d like to try in my classroom this fall is to be very explicit about my “summary pluses.” During early discussions of text, I will tell my students exactly what I’m doing when I rephrase and add my own thinking, and then I’ll slowly try to release the responsibility to them.

Giving up control of the thinking in a classroom is so much harder than it looks, but as I delve into the Common Core this summer, I’m realizing more and more how necessary it is. I’m excited to really practice what I preach this fall, and I’m looking forward to hearing from other educators on how you navigate the thinking balance in your classrooms!

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